Understanding ourselves is a deeply anchored human desire. We, as a profoundly social species, possess a wide range of highly complex cognitive skills. We can plan, comprehend situations, remember, learn, imagine, make decisions and interact with others. But how do we achieve all these tasks? And as a consequence, do we consciously act or are our actions an enforced outcome of neuronal activity?
In the last decade more and more neuroscientists have turned towards studying the human brain in order to get a hold on the human mind. The first step to tackle the brain’s complexity is to characterize the brain in detail (brain mapping), its anatomy and which circuits are active while performing certain tasks. By combining all knowledge about mental processes, researchers hope to answer the big questions in the future.
In 2011 the Allan Institute for Brain Science announced the first complete human brain atlas, an open-source catalog of brain structures and gene expression profiles of the entire human brain. It allows scientist to look up which genes are active in which regions, including disease-relevant genes. To generate this roadmap of the brain, the researchers used high-troughput technology to scan, slice and stain brain sections (see how a human brain is processed for the brain atlas in Dr. Jones’ TED talk). Reminiscent of the launch of the Human Genome Project in the early 1990s, several collaborative initiatives have been implemented in 2013 to deepen our insights in how the brain functions. The biggests being US President Barack Obama’s BRAIN Initiative and the European Commission’s Human Brain Project, each one is expected to absorb 1 billion USD. The aim is nothing less than to advance our profound knowledge on the human mind in health and disease. While the US project is mainly making use of recent landmark advances like high resolution imaging methods and optogenetics, its european counterpart aims to develop a supercomputer to simulate the human brain. The latter should allow them to conduct thought experiments on a whole brain level. This will not only create data but will allow them to integrate data with the supercomputer (watch Henry Markram’s TED talk about his ambitious solution to fighting mental disorders with supercomputers).
How to study mental processes
A long-standing question in the field is whether we solve complex tasks by using specialised brain regions or if the brain is a very general-purpose solving machine?
Nancy Kanwisher, a scientist at MIT, has made valuable discoveries in this area by studying the process of face recognition. In her TED talk she shows how she and her team study specialised brain regions using functional MRI and found a region that when stimulated artificially can alter the face perception of a patient. Her research contributes to the emerging picture of the brain’s architecture and functionality.
Watch her talk here and get to know how our understanding of the brain might answer the question who we are:
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